What went through the head of a soldier forced against his will to fight in the First World War? How did he react when asked to simply kill his enemies and not take them captive? A glimpse into the diary of the Jewish soldier Karl Klein.
February 1917, two and a half years after the outbreak of the First World War. There had been no significant movement of the war fronts in Europe for several months, both sides had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, without any purpose and with no gain for either side. On the western front, almost two million British, French and German soldiers died in heavy battles near Verdun and on the Somme River in 1916; on the eastern front, the Russian generals sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to certain death. Civilians in many countries suffered from lack of food and fatigue, countless families mourned for their sons and fathers who would never return. In Russia, the initial signs of the revolutionary movement began to appear, and the First Revolution broke out in February of 1917, leading the Russian empire to the threshold of disintegration.
The heavy losses forced the various armies to enlist more and more new soldiers. One of those soldiers was Karl Klein, a Jewish accountant from Vienna, who was recruited on February 1, 1917 to the Austro-Hungarian army, which fought as an ally together with the Kaiser’s German army. From the offset, Karl Klein understood that a significant period of his life was beginning, a period that was shrouded in uncertainty. It seems to have been this understanding that led the new soldier to write a diary, at least for the next year and a half.
The new recruits trained for three months in a military base, before being sent at the beginning of May 1917 to the southern front, the Austrian-Italian border. The border was situated in a beautiful region, on the southern edge of the Alps, south of the city of Trient. This region is characterized by well cared for villages scatted among tall mountains and pastoral lakes. This was also the site of the ethnic border between German speakers and Italian speakers. The Austrians built forts and posts on the immense mountains, sometimes as far as 3500 meters high. They were extremely difficult to reach, as Karl Klein mentions in several places in his memoir:
June 2 :
“Pai is located above the village of Mezzolombardo, on a 1000-meter high peak. We march there with all the equipment, up a narrow winding path. At times, the view from this path is breathtaking. Far below are the places, such as Begina, further right is the Etsch Valley [the river is called Etsch in German and Adige in Italian], encircled by tall mountains on both sides.”
Karl Klein was not enthused by the war. Due to the general state of affairs and in keeping with his personal opinions, Klein wrote on May 26th, 1917:
“Deep down, I would rather we were not the victors in this great battle, but for there to be no victors and losers at all. Austria’s internal state only strengthens this desire. We are facing a group of democratic countries, who are working seriously toward general disarmament and liberty for all nations.”
From this excerpt we can understand that Klein did not belong to the group of nationalists who were convinced that the armies of the neighboring countries must be defeated at all cost. When reading the memoirs, we see that Klein was not a “war hero” and did not look for adventures on the battlefield. He did not try to escape his fate as an Austrian soldier but also did not miss opportunities to reduce the dangers he was exposed to on the front.
Alongside descriptions of the events, Klein recorded the places he saw and visited, whether in his official role, or in his free time. Karl Klein also included maps of the region, which he drew in an extraordinarily clear manner, interspersed between the pages of text in the two notebooks in which he wrote his memoirs. He sometimes noted the places his unit was staying at the time.
Klein did not forget his Jewish identity during the War. On September 16, 1917 he wrote:
“Today is the eve of Rosh Hashana. I think glumly about this joyous festival, in the forsaken corner with the destroyed houses. I have not even received any news from home. I sadly ponder my future destiny. In an hour’s time we will take our positions and spend the night there – as usual – almost sleeplessly in a dank and cold cave. God! When will you put an end to this miserable life? This terrifying question does not leave my thoughts. Will I ever again live a regular life as a civilian?”
The weeks and months passed with oscillations of the front, training, and attempts to improve the daily diet – until mid-November 1917. During the massive Austrian attack on the Italian front, Karl Klein’s battle hour arrived as well. Klein describes the events of November 11 and 12, the days in which he was personally involved in the fighting, in great detail. From the description of these days in his memoirs we can feel the level of fear Klein felt during the battles. Several of his comrades from the unit fell, and others were injured.
From a military perspective, these were successful days for the Austro-Hungarian army’s war effort. In the fall of 1917 the soldiers managed to capture more areas in Italy, a fact Klein does not expressly mention. This demonstrates Klein’s apathy toward the victories and losses of the opposing armies during the war. However, on a personal level, the author of the memoirs did not remain apathetic toward the fate of the Italian soldiers he was forced to fight against.
On November 18, Klein wrote:
“An order has been issued that no Italian should be taken captive, as it has recently been reported that they shot our soldiers after they surrendered and approached [the Italians]. This order greatly depresses me; I will never be capable of killing an Italian, whose mother would mourn for him just as much. When our unit will be forced into this situation, how will I manage to avoid it?”
After his unit returned from the front, Klein became sick and was sent back to Austria-Hungary, this time to a military hospital in Bohemia, where he stayed for several months. These may have been his happiest months of the entire War. He recovered, returned to Italy and was appointed as a quartermaster, an appointment which kept him away from further activity on the front.
However, Klein and his friends spent the final weeks of the war waiting and listening to the rumors: riots in Austria, negotiations for a ceasefire and more. By the fall of 1918 the soldiers’ discipline became increasingly loose, and the end of the war seemed imminent.
On October 15, 1918 Klein wrote:
“The commanders are updating the soldiers, following instructions from the top ranks, about the impeding ceasefire, the Germans and the Czechs separately. Our forces are meant to retreat to the border of the Empire within five days. This news causes a great breath of relief among the soldiers who underwent difficult experiences […] the barrack is full of soldiers’ joyous conversation. The Czechs are signing national songs…and the name Masaryk can be heard.”
The soldiers received the order to retreat to Austria on November 1. It took Karl Klein ten days to make his way home to Vienna, first together with his friends but as they advanced, the enormous, ancient army began to fall apart, until it reached a state of total chaos. The soldiers were eager to reach home and no longer saw the officers as having any authority. On his way, Klein saw the evacuation of the southern Austrian region, which was transferred to Italian rule as part of the ceasefire. When he reached Vienna, Karl Klein witnessed a momentous moment: the declaration of the Austrian Republic on November 12, 1918:
“The establishment of the Republic was festively declared in Vienna today. For me, this was a sad day of memories. A year ago today we fought in the attack against the Italian positions in Monte Longara. The following night I experienced terrifying moments.”
It seems that the diary Klein wrote did not survive, but served as the basis for the memoirs Klein wrote after returning home safe and sound in November 1918. The difficult months undoubtedly left their mark on Klein and he decided to dedicate his time to writing memories of the “Great War” (as it was called at the time, they did not yet know that not long would pass before it would need to be numbered). Klein wrote his memoirs in two notebooks in clear handwriting. In the margins he noted numbers of photographs which appear to have shown scenery and events, but the photographs are missing.
20 years later, Klein once again found himself at the forefront of the whirlwind of history. As a Jew, Klein fled from his native Austria and managed to emigrate to England. There he was once again forced to don uniform, this time of the British army. Klein survived this war as well, we do not know if he wrote another diary. Recently, the members of his family decided to give away the remains of the estate of Karl Klein, the Viennese accountant. Among the various materials, two notebooks were discovered which testify about the historic events which took place precisely 100 years ago, from the perspective of a simple civilian who understood better than great leaders that this will be a war with no winners or losers.